Elliott forest plan paints sweeping research goals but is short on financing details
Thursday, October 24, 2019
Oregon State College of Forestry Chief of Staff Geoff Huntington explained the university’s research hopes for the Elliott State Forest at a public meeting Wednesday in Coos Bay. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Oregon State University is putting off figuring out how it could pay for Elliott State Forest while it works out what it wants to do with the forest.
At a public meeting Wednesday in Coos Bay, OSU College of Forestry Chief of Staff Geoff Huntington showed how research could combine logging and conservation goals, but he emphasized that logging wouldn’t be used to pay the forest’s school funding obligations.
Elliott revenue is dedicated to the Common School Fund, but as logging income has declined in recent years there has been pressure to sell the forest. In 2017, the State Land Board halted a plan to sell the forest for $221 million, and instead launched an effort to protect the forest as public land while decoupling it from the fund.
About 90 percent of the forest’s 91,000 acres are a fund asset. OSBA has pressed the board for years to fulfill its fiduciary duty to manage the lands to maximize schools’ benefit.
The Legislature approved $100 million in bonds issued this year to partially compensate the fund. The board has been looking for ways to make up the rest. In December 2018, the board agreed to explore an Oregon State University proposal to use the forest to research climate change, conservation, ecosystems and science-based forest management programs.
OSU’s plan would set aside roughly half the forest for conservation and the rest would be used to test competing management approaches. On one end is intensive use of some land while setting aside other parts in reserve. On the other end is using all the land for production but using it lightly.
The forest’s size would allow researchers to test multiple plots with usage gradations in different ecosystems.
OSU does not have the money to buy the forest outright. Although the research would include harvesting timber, Huntington said the university was adamant that research needs would determine harvest levels. To help protect research-focused decisions, harvest profits would be used only to support the forest work.
Oregon Department of State Lands Deputy Director of Operations Bill Ryan said at the meeting that the $121 million to make the education fund whole could come from state bonding, selling carbon credits or other still-to-be-identified sources.
Huntington said OSU hoped the combination of conservation and significant logging that would support environmental research would head off the litigation that has bedeviled any use of the forest in recent years.
“We don’t want to be in the center of another controversy about the Elliott State Forest,” he said.
OSU is still working out the plan’s feasibility. University leaders are scheduled to report to the State Land Board in December, at which time they will announce whether they think their plan is scientifically worth doing.